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November 2002 • Vol 2, No. 10 •

The Way Forward in 2002

Looking Back to 1934

By Nat Weinstein

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is in a battle that can only end in either victory or another setback for West Coast dockworkers. Because there is no middle ground, the impact of the current conflict will tend to alter the relation of forces between labor and capital elsewhere in the country.

This is not a conflict precipitated by union demands for improved wages, hours, benefits or working conditions. On the contrary, like all but one major struggle by unions in this country since at least the end of the 1970s,1 this assault on the ILWU is another case of employers demanding direct and indirect reductions in living and working conditions. And the way things work, when a series of victories accumulate, by one side or the other in the never-ending struggle between labor and capital, a momentum builds up for the winning side that grows like a train with an open throttle barreling along a straight and level track.

The most recent comparable dynamic—but one favoring working people—was set in motion starting in 1934 when workers won major strike victories citywide in three American cities, Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco. Those historic labor victories overcame the negative momentum of more than a decade of defeats, and switched the trade union locomotive onto a track of mounting victories that transformed the American labor movement into one of the world’s largest and most powerful.

The San Francisco maritime strike

Though it was long ago, the road followed in 1934 points the way to victory for the ILWU today, despite the seemingly overwhelming forces arrayed against dockworkers and their union. The following selection from ILWU history is an excerpt from Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO, by Art Preis:2 It provides an indispensable guide to action for dockworkers and their friends and allies in the current critical phase of the ILWU’s defensive struggle against the union-busting attack by maritime bosses and their government:

While the Minneapolis truck drivers were battling their way to victory, the San Francisco general strike—involving 125,000 workers at its peak—carried the American class struggle to new heights. On May 9, 1934, from 10,000 to 15,000 West Coast members of the AFL International Longshoremen’s Association went on an “unauthorized” strike. Soon the strike included 25,000 workers, many of them members of seamen’s organizations who joined in sympathy. The original demands had been for a coast-wide agreement, union control of hiring halls and a closed shop. The strikers added demands for $1 an hour instead of 85 cents and the 30-hour week instead of 48.
From the start, the strike was waged with great militancy. Frederick J. Lang,6 in his book Maritime: A history and Program, wrote “It was a real rank-and-file strike, with the ‘leaders’ swept along in the flood. It encountered every weapon then in the arsenal of the employers. The ship owners hired their own thugs who tried to work the docks and man the ships. The city police of every port on the Coast were mobilized on the waterfronts to hunt down the strikers. The newspapers, launching a slander campaign against the strikers, called on the citizenry to form vigilante committees to raid strike headquarters, the actual organization of this dirty work being entrusted to the American Legion and other ‘patriotic’ societies.”

The following is extracted from the San Francisco News’ coverage of the first day of the physical conflict between maritime workers and strikebreakers, appearing July 3, 1934:

Police Battle Stevedore Mob, Arrest Many

To the accompaniment of widespread rioting, fist fights and popping of tear gas guns and bombs, the Industrial Association of San Francisco carried out its promise today to begin moving freight from the waterfront piers, blockaded since May 9 [1934] by the marine strike.
About a score of persons were injured severely enough to require hospital treatment. Two men were shot and slightly wounded, a half dozen motor trucks were turned over and many persons suffered burning eyes from the gas. But through it all, trucks moved at the rate of about 10 per hour from the McCormick Steamship Co.’s pier to a warehouse two blocks away. That was because an area of several blocks, in which are the pier and the warehouse at 128 King Street where goods are being delivered, was kept free of strikers. But on the outskirts of this area bellowing crowds of strikers and sympathizers were hurtling rocks at policemen, fighting through clouds of tear gas and damaging and overturning trucks.
Police used their clubs freely and mounted officers rode into milling crowds. The strikers fought back, using fists, boards and bricks as weapons. Rioting was widespread but was centered in the area surrounding the Southern Pacific Depot at Third and Townsend Streets. Several shots were fired in a battle near the railroad station. One bullet struck Eugene Dunbar, union seaman, in the left ankle. He was dragged out of the melee, tended by members of the crowd until an ambulance arrived and removed him to Harbor Emergency Hospital. …
The Industrial Association announced no cars would be moved tomorrow, “because of the holiday.”
Meanwhile, the joint marine strike committee had sent out a plea to all unemployed members of every labor union to come down and join the picket lines, no matter whether they were on strike or not. The committee claimed several thousand answered the call. At dawn groups of strikers had begun to gather on the Embarcadero across from the pier. The numbers grew as the day progressed. [Emphasis added.]


These excerpts show what the San Francisco General Strike of 1934 looked like. The tactic of thousands of strikers mobilized in mass picket lines in defense of their class interests against the bosses, their government, the cops, and other repressive state institutions set an example for the entire American working class that blazed the path toward the greatest labor upsurge in American history. These strikes and the ones that followed across the country accurately reflected the real relation between labor and capital.

The Toledo autoworkers’ strike

Art Preis describes the role played by that paragon “friend of labor,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Democratic Party in 1933, the year before the Toledo Auto-Lite strike erupted. Labor history shows that capitalist “friends of labor” say nice things about workers so long as they abide by the one-sided rules of war laid down by capitalist legislators. But once workers begin fighting back and after the battle begins and tear gas and bullets begin flying in one direction and clubs and bricks in the other, these capitalist “friends” invariably show their true colors.

Labor bureaucrats and other class collaborationists, to this day, credit the Roosevelt administration’s NRA with having “given” workers the right to organize unions and the right to strike. The author of Labor’s Giant Step provides the facts dispelling this myth:

The main prop of the Roosevelt myth was that he gave American labor “the right to organize.” This claim is based on Section 7 (a) 6 inserted into Roosevelt’s chief piece of early “stabilization” legislation, the National Industrial Recovery Act, known as NRA, enacted in June 1933. Actually, the right to organize had been fully sanctioned in the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act of 1932, adopted in [President Herbert] Hoover’s administration. To be sure, labor already had that right to organize—whenever it exercised the right and fought to maintain it [emphasis added]….

Worst of all, the wave of strikes following the enactment of NRA was ending in a series of defeats. Where the union leaders themselves did not rush the workers back on the job without gains—or even union recognition—the strikes were smashed by court injunctions and armed violence. Behind the legal restraining orders and the shotguns, rifles and machine guns of police, deputies and National Guardsmen, the scabs and strikebreakers were being herded into struck plants almost at will.

It was at this stage, when strike after strike was being crushed, that the Toledo Electric Auto-Lite Company struggle blazed forth to illuminate the whole horizon of the American class struggle. The American workers were to be given an unforgettable lesson in how to confront all the agencies of the capitalist government—courts, labor boards and armed troops—and win. Art Preis describes the creative tactics employed by Toledo Auto-Lite strikers:

On February 23, 1934, the Toledo Auto-Lite workers, newly organized in AFL Federal Local 18384, went on strike. This was quickly ended by the AFL leaders with a truce agreement for negotiations through the Regional Labor Board…set up under the NRA. Refusing to be stalled further by the labor board or to submit to the Special Auto Labor Board, which Roosevelt had set up in March to sidetrack pending auto strikes and which had upheld company unionism, the Auto-Lite workers went on the picket lines again on April 13.
The company followed the usual first gambit in such a contest. It went to a friendly judge and got him to issue an injunction limiting picketing. The strike had begun to die on its feet when a committee of Auto-Lite workers came to the [Lucas County] Unemployed League and asked for aid. What happened then was described by Louis F. Budenz, in the previously cited collection of articles, Challenge to the New Deal, edited by Alfred Bingham and Selden Rodman:
“The merit of this particular AFL union was that it did strike…. But when the company resorted to the injunction, the union officers observed its terms. In less than three weeks, under protection of the court decree, the company had employed or otherwise secured 1800 strikebreakers in the Auto-Lite alone.
“That would have been the end, and another walkout of the workers would have gone into the wastebasket of history. The Lucas County Unemployed League, also enjoined, refused however to let the fight go in that way. Two of its officers, Ted Selander and Sam Pollock, [and several auto local members] wrote [May 5, 1934] Judge R. R. Stuart, advising him that they would violate the injunction by encouraging mass picketing. They went out and did so. They were arrested, tried and released—the court warning them to picket no more. They answered by going directly from court, with all the strikers and unemployed league members who had been present, to the picket line. Through the mass trials, Selander and Pollock got out a message as to the nature of the capitalist court. The picket line grew.”
The unexampled letter sent by the local Unemployed League to Judge Stuart deserves to be preserved for posterity. It is an historic document that ranks in its way with the great declarations of human freedom more widely known and acclaimed. The letter [dated May 5, 1934] read:
Honorable Judge Stuart:
On Monday morning May 7, at the Auto-Lite plant, the Lucas County unemployed League, in protest of the injunction issued by your court, will deliberately and specifically violate the injunction enjoining us from sympathetically picketing peacefully in support of the striking Auto Workers Federal Union.
We sincerely believe that this court intervention, preventing us from picketing, is an abrogation of our democratic rights, contrary to our constitutional liberties and contravenes the spirit and the letter of Section 7a of the NRA.
Further, we believe that the spirit and intent of this arbitrary injunction is another specific example of an organized movement to curtail the rights of all workers to organize, strike and picket effectively.
Therefore, with full knowledge of the principles involved and the possible consequences, we openly and publicly violate an injunction which, in our opinion, is a suppressive and oppressive act against all workers.
Sincerely yours,
Lucas County Unemployed League
Anti-Injunction Committee
Sam Pollock, Sec’y6

Preis goes on to paint a picture of what the Minneapolis Teamsters strike looked like:

While the [Toledo] Auto-Lite strike was reaching its climax, the truck drivers of Minneapolis were waging the second of a series of three strikes which stand to this day as models for organization, strategy and incorruptible, militant leadership. Minneapolis, with its twin city St. Paul, is the hub of Minnesota’s wheat, lumber and iron ore areas. Transport—rail and truck—engages a relatively large number of workers. In early 1934, Minneapolis was a notoriously open-shop town. The Citizens Alliance, an organization of anti-union employers, ruled the city.
On February 7, 8 and 9, 1934, the Citizens Alliance got the first stunning blow that was to shatter its dominance. Within three days the union of coal yard workers, organized within General Drivers Local Union 574, AFL International Brotherhood of Teamsters, had paralyzed all the coal yards and won union recognition. The Minneapolis Labor Review, February 15, 1934, hailed “the masterly manner in which the struggle was conducted…there has never been a better example of enthusiastic efficiency than displayed by the coal driver pickets.”
The February 24, 1934 Militant [newspaper] reported that Local 574 “displayed a well organized, mobile, fighting picket line that stormed over all opposition, closed 65 truck yards, 150 coal offices and swept the streets clear of scabs in the first three hours of the strike.”
The most painstaking and detailed preparation had gone into this strike. The organizers were a group of class-conscious socialists, Trotskyists who had been expelled from the Stalinized Communist Party in 1928, and workers sympathetic to the Trotskyist point of view…. “One of the outstanding features of the strike,” the original Militant report stated, “was the Cruising Picket Squad. This idea came from the ranks and played a great role in the strike.” This “cruising picket squad” was the original of the “flying squadrons” that were to become part of the standard picketing techniques of the great CIO strikes.

The successful class struggle strategy and tactics followed by workers in 1934 proved to be the opening barrage leading to the great labor victories that followed and continued through World War II. The labor upsurge reached a peak in the greatest strike wave in American history that began when the war ended in the fall of 1945 and rose to new heights in 1946.

The victorious dynamic set in motion by the three strikes in 1934 proved to all American workers that a fighting working class can mobilize mass support by unemployed and other workers on the field of battle. And spearheaded by a fighting leadership striking workers could mobilize mass picket lines, marches and rallies in the streets. From that year on those three citywide strikes became solid union towns and models for successful strike action.

Industrial unionism and the CIO

Most importantly, the leaders of these strikes demonstrated how the strategy of class struggle enables workers to fight and win, giving heart and hope to labor everywhere for the climactic struggle that was to build the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a powerful labor federation based on the organizational principle of industrial unionism. This form of unionism, as distinguished from outmoded craft unionism in the era of giant mass production industries, includes all workers, skilled and unskilled.

Craft unionism, on the other hand, was effective enough in the period before modern steam and electric powered mass production. Most unions in that period focused on organizing the small workforces prevalent at the time composed of carpenters, millwrights, machinists, plumbers, electricians, etc., who tend to be masters of the variety of skills and hand tools used by workers in these crafts. But by excluding the so-called “unskilled” workers who constitute the great majority of workers on the vast assembly lines in the industrial heartland of America, the craft unions, restricted to a minor sector of the workforce in the country’s giant industries, reduced their own bargaining position and wages.

Craft unions that dared to also organize unskilled workers, moreover, tended to be smashed by the far more powerful giants of 20th century American industry. However, the combination of the explosion of giant mass production industries and the drastic reduction in average wages caused by the mass unemployment of the Great Depression created favorable objective conditions for a breakthrough for industrial unionism.

It took the new generation of super-exploited workers in these industries to spark an organizing campaign that the existing minority of industrial unions embraced and helped lead. AFL industrial unions like the miners, textile and garment workers, aided and abetted the spontaneous eruption of mass union consciousness. The industrial unions, old and new, triggered by the strikes in 1934 eventually coalesced in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

When the CIO mobilized the masses of unskilled workers many skilled workers were swept along by the force of the struggle. It resulted in the victory of industrial unionism over the world’s most powerful industrial corporations and higher wages for both highly skilled and less skilled workers in the mighty new federation of industrial unionism, the CIO.

Workers, bosses, bureaucrats and the Taft-Hartley Act

The use of the Taft-Hartley Act to crush all resistance by the ILWU and its membership to a ruling class attempt to strip this union of the remaining gains it won in its heroic 1934 struggle, compels this writer to describe how it came to pass.

The trail of industrial unionism blazed by autoworkers in Toledo, truck drivers in Minneapolis and maritime workers in San Francisco gathered momentum until 1947 when a bipartisan U.S. Congress enacted the infamous Taft-Hartley Act. Experienced trade unionists at the time pointed out that if fully enforced, this anti-labor legislation would totally destroy genuine trade unionism in the United States. Even the top officialdom of the AFL and CIO, accurately dubbed Taft-Hartley the “slave labor law”—but failed to mobilize their membership for the kind of fight needed to defeat it.

Thus, in the intervening years since its enactment, unions have been made increasingly powerless because the labor bureaucracy has obeyed the bosses rules of class war.

The top officials of the AFL and CIO refused to mobilize their rank and file in mass protest demonstrations at factory gates and streets of America. (The membership in the two labor federations, at the time, included some 32 million members.)

The two labor federations, instead, put all their hopes in their Democratic Party “friends” blocking the slave labor law, and relying on them to repeal it after its enactment. In fact, without the indispensable assistance of the cowardly and disloyal top labor officialdom, this legislation had little chance for passage in the very first instance.

And no less importantly, had they mobilized the ranks for an effective fight, a momentum could have been mounted that could have handily blocked implementation of the new union-busting laws. After all, the union ranks had just completed the most powerful wave of strike victories in American history in violation of many still existing labor laws as well as executive actions by governors and presidents intending to crush strikes with the help of the entire judicial branch of government. Thus, the organized workers were supremely self-confident.

But, as we shall see, with a few honorable exceptions—UMW President John L. Lewis and several others—the top labor officials were instrumental in helping to enforce two key sections of this law. Their treasonous role cut the ground from under effective resistance to the implementation of the provisions of Taft-Hartley.

One of these sections compelled all union officers to swear that they were “not now, nor were they ever members of a Communist organization.” This section provided for the removal of those refusing to sign such an oath from their elected union posts. And as the history of the witch hunt proves, all that was required for someone to be labeled a “Communist”—and penalized in one way or another—was little more than a mere accusation by a false witness. And many of the false witnesses were those in the labor bureaucracy and those aspiring for such posts who stood to gain from the resulting elimination or silencing of many union militants—officials and rank and filers alike.

In fact, the witch hunt inside the unions led to a virtual bureaucratic dictatorship that has grown stronger as the unions grew weaker.

The same “labor statesmen,” as they once liked to be known, also facilitated the enforcement of the iniquitous section of Taft-Hartley barring “secondary boycotts.” That’s the section making it illegal for unions to respect the picket lines of sister unions on strike. The effect was to make elementary union solidarity a crime!

Capitalist America, however, proceeded cautiously, fearing that moving too far too fast could provoke a massive reaction by workers that might well have made the new anti-labor laws a dead letter.

Instead, they followed the insidious policy of “convincing” the self-serving labor bureaucracy, interested only in furthering and maintaining their privileges,6 that Taft-Hartley would never be used to destroy their unions and thus gained the evermore compliant collaboration of the labor bureaucracy. Nevertheless, what followed for some thirty years was a turbulent period of strikes provoked by the country’s most powerful industrial corporations. The reinstitution of rule by injunctions limiting striking pickets to ineffectual groups of a half-dozen or so at each workplace entrance. That heavily weighted the balance of power over to corporate America.

In those first three post-Taft-Hartley decades the labor bureaucracy introduced a policy of trading away bit by bit such things as union control over hiring and firing, in exchange for wage increases that at best merely kept wages abreast of inflation. Starting in the late 1960s—largely as a result of the enormous budget deficits resulting from the cost of the Vietnam War—the rate of inflation soared, and the share of taxation borne by workers and the lower middle class also soared as taxes on corporate America were reduced.

Then while the AFL-CIO leadership could no longer keep wages and benefits abreast of the cost of living, they continued to give up gains made in the great labor upsurge.

Meanwhile, the continuing setbacks suffered by more and more workers at the hands of government enforcers of Taft-Hartley served to steadily undermine worker confidence in their capacity to win strikes and led to a steady process of worker demoralization and alienation from the bureaucracy and, in many cases, from trade unionism itself.

The author of Labor’s Giant Step aptly characterized the giveback policy of the labor officialdom at the time as “the hock-shop method of bargaining.”

Democrats, labor bureaucrats and Taft-Hartley

Before we go into the role played by the labor bureaucracy in the period preceding passage of Taft-Hartley, we must first describe the role of the Democratic Party, without whose support this slave labor law could not have been made into law. A mythological history of this turning point in the relation of class forces in the United States has been widely disseminated by the labor bureaucracy and the mass media. The myth—that the Republicans were for, and the Democrats against, the adoption of Taft-Hartley—revolves around Democratic Party President Harry Truman’s veto of Taft-Hartley after large majorities in both houses of Congress approved it.

But labor bureaucrats and other reformists never mention the fact that Democrats had a substantial minority of 46.9 percent in the senate in 1947, enough to block a vote to override Truman’s veto which required a 66 2/3 percent majority. It could not have become law without the help of close to half the Democrats in the senate alone (assuming all Republicans voted to override Truman’s veto). In fact, both the initial vote on Taft-Hartley and the vote to override Truman’s veto were both well over a two-thirds majority in the senate which included 20 of the 42 Democratic Party senators voting to override the veto

To make the real position of the Democratic Party clearer still, President Truman had earlier proposed an anti-labor law of his own, as we shall see below, that was even more harshly anti-labor than Taft-Hartley. Some more of the background to understanding how Taft-Hartley became the law of the land, however, is necessary.

Background to passage of Taft-Hartley

One of the most important reasons for the ruling class’s decision to put a yoke around the necks of the working class was the massive wave of strikes that began immediately after the end of World War II.

This strike wave began in 1945 and continued throughout the following year. It was the largest in American history. In 1946 alone, there were more strikes (4,985), more working days on strike (116 million), and more strikers (4,600,000) than ever before or since. Workers made gains that made up in great part for what was lost due to a combination of repeated strikebreaking and other anti-worker emergency rules and regulations initiated and enforced by so-called “pro-labor” president Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II—continuing under Harry Truman who was sworn in as president when Roosevelt died in 1945.

The explosive power of the postwar labor upsurge set off major challenges to the capitalist status quo. In early 1946, a 26-day strike by 800,000 CIO steelworkers won a major victory against the giant U.S. Steel Corporation. 225,000 CIO autoworkers struck against General Motors at the end of 1945 and 113 days later, on March 5, 1946, GM capitulated.

One of these challenges leads us to President Truman’s notoriously anti-labor role that year. (Typically, it has obviously been blanked out of the memory of the labor officialdom and other reformists who support Democrats and other alleged “pro-labor” capitalist politicians.) Truman’s rabidly anti-labor role during the war and afterward set the stage for his duplicitous cover-up of his own and his party’s complicity in the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act by a veto he knew was guaranteed to be overridden with the indispensable help of his party.

On May 23, 1946 when locomotive engineers and railway trainmen went on a national strike that halted the entire railway system. Two days later, Truman, in a radio speech gave them “a 24-hour ultimatum to end the strike or he would use troops to run the railroads.” The author of Labor’s Giant Step explains further.

Truman did not wait for his ultimatum to expire before seeking powers for further drastic strikebreaking measures. The day after his radio blast Truman called a special joint session of Congress and demanded that it enact the most repressive legislation against organized labor ever advocated by a President. He urged Congress “immediately to authorize the President to draft into the armed forces” all workers “who are on strike against the government.” And this was in peacetime!
Truman’s bill further provided that those who continued to strike at seized facilities would be subject to a “$5,000 fine and a year’s imprisonment, plus loss of job or seniority rights…. The bill, however, proposed to take good care of the railroad corporations. It provided for “fixing of just compensation to the owners…to the value the use of such properties would have had to the owners” had the lines continued to operate under private control.
Within two hours of Truman’s demand, the Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives had approved his proposed emergency measure by a majority of 306 to 13. The measure was delayed in the Senate only because ultra-reactionary elements wanted to make it “foolproof” and to tack it on to the Case Anti-Strike Bill, which previously had been given precedence on the Senate floor.6

The capitalist shell game: hard-cop, soft-cop

That was the background to Truman’s veto and the myth that the Democrats were opposed to the Taft-Hartley Act. If further proof is necessary, we need only note that the Democrats claimed to be in favor of repeal of parts of the slave labor Act until the time of the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Democrats, having a majority in both Houses of Congress under President Richard Nixon had little excuse for not repealing at least a key section of the slave labor law. With Nixon in the White House the Democrats, knowing that “hard-cop” President Nixon would veto their bill, actually passed it. He did and, of course, the Democrats not having the necessary two-thirds majority evaded responsibility for not overriding Nixon’s veto.

It can be stated as an indisputable fact that the hard-cop soft-cop shell game played by Republicans and Democrats allows enough of the latter to vote against anti-labor and other reactionary legislation, like war and taxes, to maintain their party’s “pro-labor” image, but always fail to mobilize enough votes to defeat truly pro-working class laws.

Now we come to the clincher: The AFL-CIO campaigned for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter and its candidates for Congress around the slogan, “Elect a Veto-Proof Congress!” The Democrats, true to their policy of making empty promises, fully endorsed this slogan. As we know, it served to elect Jimmy Carter to the nation’s top office.

Also elected to the delight of the labor bureaucracy was its goal of gaining more than a two-thirds majority for Congressional Democrats. But, lo and behold, though they had more than enough Democrats in Congress than needed for a two-thirds majority, they could not muster a simple majority for repeal of a key section of the hated slave labor law, making a mockery of their slogan, “Elect a veto-proof Congress!”

How the labor bureaucracy helped make union solidarity illegal

One of the most destructive provisions in Taft-Hartley is the one outlawing “secondary boycotts.” That’s the rule that makes it illegal for one union to honor the picket lines of another. Court-ordered injunctions had been the main legal instrument for suppressing strikes and so-called “secondary boycotts.” Injunctions made lawful again by Taft-Hartley were still difficult, however, to enforce against union women and men who still honored union picket lines.

(Incidentally, the term “secondary boycott” is a no-brainer since all boycotts affect both the struck company and “secondary” targets—its suppliers, distributors and customers.)

In any case, the labor bureaucracy found it extremely difficult to order their workers to cross picket lines since the worst crime in the eyes of union-conscious workers is crossing a picket line. Consequently, though most union officials attempted to find a middle ground by simply telling their members that “good trade unionists don’t cross picket lines,” experienced trade unionists knew that this ploy would prove to be inadequate. After all, when workers are left on their own to resist intense pressure applied by their employer to make deliveries or cross picket lines outside their workplace, many tend to buckle under the boss’s threats. Why? Because, they soon found out that most of the bureaucrats telling them what good union men and women should do did not back them up when they refused to cross picket lines and they ended up penalized or fired.

However, even the local union officials who used this half measure to resist employer pressure to cross picket lines are not entirely to blame. It was those at the top of the labor hierarchy who deserve the lion’s share of the blame, having repeatedly failed to resist any aspect of the slave labor laws, and worse— having openly and surreptitiously helped the bosses enforce it.

In any case, even with injunction law in effect, it was still difficult to enforce the law against union solidarity. Many union conscious workers, supported by the more sensible union officials who understood the importance of union solidarity, or fearing a militant union membership, refused to cross union picket lines. They turned the bosses argument that “pickets are violent” against their adversaries. They refused to cross picket lines by claiming it was a risk to their health and safety.

But half-measures of that sort can be easily thwarted by the ruling class. Besides, when trade unionists use the bosses’ argument about “violence on picket lines,” it can be easily turned back on the unions by the capitalist adversary—who persistently preach against violence but are its prime practitioners, domestically and globally.

In any case, the bosses negated the risk to their safety argument with the help, once again, of the labor bureaucracy. The latter deepened the betrayal of their members and the unions they headed by collaborating closely with employers to insert clauses barring “secondary boycotts” into their contracts. In other words, the union bureaucracy could then tell workers they must cross “secondary” picket lines because it’s not only unlawful, “it’s a violation of our contractual agreement with the employers.”

Down the slippery slope

This step-by-step erosion of rank-and-file morale, and the steady process of dilution by the labor officialdom of the fundamental principles of class solidarity upon which trade unionism rests, has a logic of its own. It puts the complicit labor officialdom on a slippery slope from which it becomes next to impossible for them to retreat. Unfortunately, once the top labor hierarchy marches down that path, they take most of the local officialdom down the slope with them.

Thus, on August 3, 1981, when nearly 13,000 of the 17,500 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike, the top officials of the AFL-CIO backed substantially further down that slippery slope. This strike was more than a run-of-the-mill confrontation between a single union and the bosses and their government.

The airline controllers were not just trying to hold on to what they had. They demanded higher wages, a shorter workweek, and better retirement benefits. But newly elected President Ronald Reagan was riding a middle class wave powered by their growing opposition to the steady shifting of the tax burden from the capitalist class to the backs of the working and middle classes. Reagan and his bipartisan gang argued that prices were rising because of wage increases won by striking unions. They argued too, that taxes were rising because of the rising cost of social welfare programs. The mass media also played the race card to the hilt by splashing headlined stories featuring photos of “‘welfare queens’ riding in ‘Cadillacs’ to pick up their welfare checks” who just “happened” to be Black.

This capitalist-orchestrated racially-colored middle-class tax revolt swept up the backward, and better-off layers of the working class into the anti-tax revolt that did not spare the poorest and most impoverished layers of their class from bearing the increasing tax burden. In addition to income taxes borne by workers close to or below the poverty line, a much larger portion of the meager wages of the poorest workers was gobbled up by the absurdly regressive social security and sales taxes. To this day, the policy of the ruling class is to take an ever-smaller portion of the incomes of the rich, and an ever-larger chunk from the poor.

At a press conference in the White House Rose Garden the day the PATCO strike began, President Reagan—like Roosevelt and Truman before him—responded with a stern ultimatum: The strikers were to return to work within 48 hours or face termination.

Reagan’s union-busting assault, however, could have been easily defeated if the leaders of the American labor movement had simply abided by the principle of class solidarity among millions of union-conscious workers. However, the leaders representing workers at airline terminals, organized in some of the nation’s largest and most powerful industrial unions, cynically ordered their members to cross the picket lines of striking airline controllers while hypocritically issuing pledges of solidarity. AFL-CIO President George Meany, of course, led the pack of top-union officers who made vigorous but empty protests directed exclusively against Reagan and the Republicans—covering up for the Democrats, who supported Reagan’s union busting to the hilt.

The strike was broken, the union smashed and a steadily intensifying decades-long anti-labor offensive headed by big business and the bipartisan capitalist government of the United States was launched. In fact, the latest Taft-Hartley-spiked assault on the ILWU by bosses and their government raises the anti-labor offensive to a new level—to strip the longshore workers and their union of any way to defend themselves against reinstitution of the conditions that prevailed before their 68 year old strike victory.

The contradictory character of union bureaucrats

The reader will have noticed by now that the line of argument in these pages is directed at both bosses and bureaucrats. Each in their own way follows a parallel trajectory but their motives are quite different. The employers are motivated by an unquenchable thirst for ever-higher profits. The bureaucrats, however, are a different kind of problem for working people and are a classic example of a living, walking, talking contradiction.

In the first place, all union officials are not bureaucrats. It is a sign of the times to say that most officials take such jobs primarily because it pays good and, as they see it and do it, the work is easy. Union officials who take such jobs because they aspire to lead their sister and brother unionists in a more effective struggle to defend and advance their common living and working conditions are not bureaucrats; they are truly union leaders.

In the second place all bureaucrats are not equal. Some are better than others. And all are capable of reflecting in their actions their contradictory interests as a privileged social caste fastened on the class from which they arose. An intelligent approach to bosses and bureaucrats is to understand the fundamental difference between the two. The class interests of all capitalists are diametrically opposed to the class interests of all workers.

But that’s not the case with bureaucrats. Their caste interests are in conflict with their members’ class interests but, on the other hand, they must defend the union to maintain their privileged position from the boss.

Unions, even those highly bureaucratized, are inherently instruments ultimately under the control of its worker constituency. Bureaucrats certainly abuse and violate democracy at those times when their members move to replace them, but in the last analysis workers have the power to remove officials who perform badly and harmfully. Historically, when union elections have been stolen, and workers sufficiently motivated by objective conditions as in the 1930s and ’40s, simply take over the union hall and toss the crooks out on their ears.

In other words, trade unions are a fighting institution of the working class. Its enemy is the boss, while the bureaucrats, under certain conditions, serve the boss’s interest and at other times can rise above their caste interests and play a positive role on the side of the workers in the class struggle.

Building a new leadership is on the order of the day

It should be apparent by now that a new leadership, based on the lessons learned from the last 68 years of class struggle, is on the order of the day. There are many militant trade unionists scattered today throughout the union movement. Some have established themselves as influential leaders in their local unions. Many more are groping for a way to organize such a nucleus oriented toward overcoming the leaden weight of the bureaucracy blocking the way forward.

The AFL-CIO hierarchy conceives its role as one of partnership with corporate America for the perpetuation of peaceful collaborative relations between the leaders of labor and capital. Thus, they are incapable of resisting, much less, opposing the relentless assault on working people’s defensive institutions and their living and working conditions. The best they are able to do is to plead with their partners-in-legalized-crime to stop the “one-sided class war” being waged against them.

The most conscious trade unionists—that is, those who have thought through what unionism means and have taken the trouble to read labor history—know that a trade union is a united front of working people.

The united front is a tactic that all sections of society use from time to time; usually as ad hoc formations around questions ranging from a demand for the extension of social security benefits, defense of civil rights and civil liberties, or opposition to unjust wars. The AFL-CIO is such a united front formation that has become firmly entrenched—but not so firm as to be indestructible.

Unlike political parties, such united front formations tend to organize around one, two or several goals. When such a united front becomes institutionalized, encompassing millions of members, as do the American unions, divisions over policy inevitably arise. Caucuses tend to form—that is, groups of workers advocating policies that are in dispute inside the unions. Many unions today have such caucuses, some advocating a change in policy and others in support of existing policy. What is needed is such a “caucus,” or, more precisely, a united front organized by those members in every union who want to fight for a shift of policy from the existing strategy of class collaboration, to one of class struggle. In other words, it’s a united front within a united front—in this case, the unions—oriented to change the policy of the unions and either replace or win over sections of the existing official leadership.

Revolutionary Marxists have long advocated the formation of such a united front inside the unions and loyal to the unions and their membership; that is, a class struggle left wing inside the labor movement of the United States.

Two such formations that made significant headway have in the past been formed in this country. The first, formed in 1920, was called the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL). The second was called the Committee for Industrial Organization, most of which later split off from the AFL and formed the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). The Committee was formed in late 1935 in a meeting of top officials of AFL international unions, and after many of its international unions were expelled from the AFL in 1936, the Congress was born as an independent labor federation at a founding convention in 1938.

Both the TUEL and the CIO focused on the need for the industrial form of trade unionism organizing all workers in an industry into one big union. The TUEL, however, also advocated a rounded class-struggle program for the American workers as a class. The CIO included advocates of a class struggle policy and others who may have tolerated class struggle tactics, but the CIO as a whole was not committed to a class struggle policy. Of course, the CIO abandoned all class struggle tactics long before it merged with the AFL in 1955.

Most of the existing unions at those times were organized according to craft. That reflected the period before the rise of large mass production industries with electric-powered belts moving autos and other heavy machines past workers who each performed a special operation with powered hand tools. But craft unions, focused on organizing only those skilled workers in their union’s jurisdiction (allotted by the AFL), leaving unorganized the great majority who worked as so-called “unskilled” laborers on the assembly lines. Thus craft unionism had in most cases outlived its usefulness and industrial unionism became indispensable to the organization of the auto, steel, electrical and other giants of American industry.

I will conclude with the thought that the formation of a class struggle left wing in the unions on a massive scale is inevitable because it is vitally necessary for the future of working people. But there are always two ends to what is inevitable—the unions will be reorganized under a class struggle leadership or they will die as institutions capable of defending the interests of the working people of America.

The task of such a left-wing union movement will be like that conceived by the TUEL. That means organizing not merely to advance the interests of workers in the unions, but organizing to lead the workers as a whole in the never-ending struggle to defend and advance their interests as a class. Moreover, the revolutionary wing of the working class must be the champion of all the victims of capitalist social, economic and political injustice. That, of course, requires a rounded program based on the lessons deriving from the history of class struggle.

Unemployment is not only intrinsic to the capitalist mode of production, it is indispensable to capitalism’s need to keep labor costs as low as they can, the intensity of labor as high as they can, and replace as many workers by machines as they can. All, in order to defeat their competitors in the domestic and global marketplace.

In other words, a rounded program is needed that will include such solutions for the scourge of unemployment that now threatens to increase to levels at least as high as was reached in the decade now known as the Great Depression. And, indeed, there is a solution to this problem that was discovered by the workers’ movement soon after the end of the eighteenth century when workers began their struggle to lower the 12-hour day to 10 hours.

But along with the industrial revolution and its consequent acceleration of the productivity of human labor by evermore sophisticated steam, then electric powered machines, workers discovered that the only way to reduce ever-increasing joblessness was by fighting to reduce the workday and workweek without a reduction in weekly pay.

Unemployment was, in fact, ameliorated by the successful struggle for the 10-hour day, 6-day week. Later the struggle began for the 8-hour day and later still, for the 40-hour week. And after that was achieved, the vanguard of the working class began a struggle for the 6-hour day, 30 hour week. A few unions in the late 1930s and early ’40s won the 30-hour week, and a significant number won the 35-hour week. Among those were many building trades unions and a few others—all without a reduction in daily and weekly pay!

The next stage of the struggle against the endemic threat of capitalist unemployment will be the struggle for an ever-shorter workweek. And in the age of permanent inflation, a parallel struggle will inevitably mount providing for wages to be adjusted automatically to the rising cost of living—as it did in the late 1960s and ’70s.

In other words, the vanguard of the workers’ movement—including the class struggle wing of the trade unions—will become the champions of the demand for a rational solution to the threat of rising unemployment based on the principle of dividing the number of hours of labor required each week for the production of the goods society needs, so that everyone has a job and an income. That is a steadily declining work day and week without a decrease in pay. This is entirely feasible since it is based on the fact of a steady increase in productivity due to the conquests of science and technology. All workers, then, would contribute to the process of production, and would tend to demand the right to enjoy the increasing fruits of their labor.

To be sure, while this ideal solution can never be reached within the framework of the capitalist mode of production, as labor history proves, it nevertheless provides a practical way to fight against joblessness and defend and advance their living and working conditions.

But that, of course will only a beginning. All the problems of human society—everything from the abolition of unemployment racism, sexism, war and environmental destruction, as well as the elimination of all other anti-social evils that grow in the fertile soil of capitalism—will tend to be included in the program of the class struggle left wing.

However, the formation of a class struggle left-wing in the unions would not in itself be a solution. But it certainly will be a giant step toward the formation of the kind of rounded working class political leadership that can take humanity toward the revolutionary reconstitution of the system based on production for profit to a system based on production for the satisfaction of human needs and wants.

That society is called socialism; that is, a world without borders and without the social, economic and political injustices endemic to capitalism.


1 The single exception was the International Brotherhood of Teamsters strike victory over the United Parcel Service in 1997.

62 Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty years of the CIO, by Art Preis, Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1964.

3 Frederick J. Lang, was the pen name of Frank Lovell who was a seaman and long-time member of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party.

4 John L. Lewis, the United Mine Workers’ president, and later first president of the CIO, used Section 7 (a) of the NRA in a way Roosevelt never intended. He “sent an army of union organizers into the coalfields, shouting ‘The President wants you to join the union.’” (That, of course, was a fanciful “interpretation” of this Section that “legalized” unions but provided no means for its enforcement.)

Lewis was one of history’s occasional examples of a union bureaucrat who rose above his peers in his determination to use effective methods far more often than most of his kind to advance the interests of his dues-paying members and give them at least some of their money’s worth. Lewis was a class collaborationist, like the others, but he tended to break out of that mold when it conflicted with his need to maintain the loyalty of his members. Coal miners had a militant class struggle history going back to 1862. Lewis had to put up something of a real fight to keep his job. The fighting tradition of coalminers was legendary and so were the lies and vilification of miners by the news media. Among other things, militant miners were slandered as “Molly Maguires,” a fictitious “secret society of terrorists…invented by the commercial press whose purpose it was to help the coal operators crush all [union] organization in the mining industry.” (History of the Labor Movement in the United States, by Philip S. Foner, International Publishers, New York.)

5 Labor’s Giant Step

6The capitalist government facilitated the corruption of the labor officialdom by rarely penalizing outright theft by bureaucrats from the treasuries of union, pension and healthcare funds. Meanwhile the bureaucrats began steadily raising their salaries, expense accounts and other extravagant benefits, getting two, three or more salaries for nominally serving in as many union posts. Even one such paid position and ample expense accounts has come to average a multiple of the wage paid the average worker.

6 Labor’s Giant Step, page 290.





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